Commenter rikrah posted this last night and I’ve been thinking about it since:
On the morning of December 21, 2010, Lula Smart was preparing to leave for her job at Sears when she heard a firm knock at her front door. An array of law enforcement vehicles had amassed outside, and armed officers were fanning out around her house. Before that day, Smart had no rap sheet to speak of, only a master’s degree in criminal justice earned earlier that year. While she enjoyed her work in retail, Smart hoped to transition into a job more like that of her unannounced visitors, who would read her a dizzying list of felony voting fraud charges that amounted to more than 100 years in prison. Handcuffed, Smart soon met nine other incarcerated African Americans who had participated in a vigorous get-out-the-vote campaign ahead of an election the previous month. Three of those jailed had been elected to the local school board.
Their efforts had helped to win the first-ever African American majority on Brooks County’s Board of Education. But almost four years after that vote, dozens of felony fraud charges still overshadow the group, known locally as the Quitman 10 + 2 (two more were subsequently charged). In her living room, Smart points to the television where she first saw her orange-jumpsuit-clad mug shot on the nightly news. She is the only member of the group who has not yet seen a trial—or, more precisely, she’s had two mistrials and counting. Since receiving 32 felony charges, her hoped-for career in criminal justice has, obviously, stalled. She now works full-time at Home Depot and fills in part-time shifts selling shoes at the department store. Before the first trial, she contemplated suicide, but says her resolve has since grown.
Smart’s arrest was the result of a massive investigation initiated by a local district attorney whose senior assistant attorney sat on the Brooks County school board. Although this conflict of interest disqualified the DA from trying the case, it didn’t prevent him from compelling the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) to launch an exceptionally large probe into the disruptive school-board election.
Yet the massive investigation failed to produce evidence that Smart or any other member of the group had defrauded or coerced a single voter. With these goods lacking, the state built its prosecution instead on proving that she and others breached technicalities like carrying envelopes containing ballots to the mail for their close acquaintances without the proper authorization. Even on these counts, the state is struggling to make its case.
I find this particularly chilling because I was recently involved in a public school levy campaign (not a school board race, as in this case in Georgia) and we did the same thing: we targeted our GOTV to specific voters.
It was our belief that the people who were the most affected by school funding issues were also “sporadic” voters; younger working people with children who really rely on a local public school as the center of their child’s community because they don’t have the means or opportunity to offer their children the “extras” that someone who makes more money and works regular, predictable hours might. We thought they had the most “skin in the game” yet were perhaps least likely to hear about the election and we were right. We told them about it, door to door, and they came out. Most of them had no idea it was going on. We won by almost exactly the margin of the voters we identified as “sporadic” or perhaps disengaged (for all kinds of reasons).
Doesn’t this prosecution seem crazily excessive and really designed to make anyone think twice about getting involved in organizing? I get that there are very specific rules relating to balloting, but for goodness sakes. This sounds nuts.